It happened once, during the music appreciation portion of the drum circle Chris Lavidas was leading at an independent living center. Lavidas can’t recall the song that moved one woman to tears, but he does remember why she was crying: She and her husband danced to it at their wedding. It was their song, and listening to it brought back happy memories. She was crying tears of joy.
Music is extraordinary in that way. Research shows that listening to music can elevate your mood and reduce stress, anxiety and depression. For people suffering from a gradual decline in cognitive functioning caused by Alzheimer’s or dementia, music is a game changer. It can stimulate specific areas of the brain and reduce symptoms, as well as slow the progression of disease. There’s also evidence that specific areas of the brain linked to musical memory are relatively untouched by Alzheimer’s and dementia.
[Music] can stimulate specific areas of the brain and reduce symptoms, as well as slow the progression of disease.
“Melody, music and lyrics is one of the last things to go when it comes to memory and dementia,” explained Lavidas, president of Breaking Grounds in Drumming in Arlington Heights, Illinois. “They may forget their kids’ names, but they’ll remember a full song.”
Melody, music and lyrics is one of the last things to go when it comes to memory and dementia. They may forget their kids’ names, but they’ll remember a full song.
Lavidas has been bringing drum circles – a gathering of people seated in a circle with drums on their laps and drumsticks in their hands while a teacher guides them through exercises – to independent and assisted living communities throughout the Chicago area since 2008.
“I don’t cross the line and make it a drum lesson,” he said. “It’s not instruction. But I am teaching basic concepts about music theory and applying it in a hands-on and fun way.”
Each interactive, 45-minute session is quick-moving and broken down into segments:
- Rhythm exploration: This includes a call-and-repeat drum exercise or freestyling rhythms
- Resident engagement: Unlike a concert, each session is interactive.
- Music therapy: Activities build cognitive skills, coordination and mind-alertness, and relieve stress.
- Music appreciation: Every session features a discussion about an artist from the past, highlighting their career, success and legacy.
- Community: Participants engage with each other.
Lavidas is constantly mixing it up.
“I might do a song, exercise, brief discussion, another activity and share fun facts about the artists,” he said. “That way I retain their attention the entire length of the program. If I talk too much, they’ll fall asleep or wander off.”
The activities Lavidas does with memory care residents are really exercises in disguise, used to develop muscles and muscle memory, long-term and short-term memory, visualization, thinking, and auditory and creative skills.
“Music is an art,” he said. “I try to foster it.”
After a lesson about the history of jazz, including its origin and influences, he’ll teach residents about the rhythms of that style, pass out drums and give everyone an opportunity to create their own sound and rhythm.
“What really makes this program unique is engagement and interaction,” he said. “Everybody’s a part of the program.”
Music loosens dementia’s grip
Each exercise helps in a different way, Lavidas explained. One program might emphasize coordination of hands and feet. If he features jazz great Dave Brubeck, who was all about playing jazz in different time signatures, he’ll lead an activity that teaches residents about the origins of those time signatures, demonstrate what they sound like on the drums, and have everyone play rhythms within those time counts.
“It involves retention and comprehension,” Lavidas explained. “You have to remember what you learned and play it. It involves creativity and interpretations based on your own beat to that time signature. You learn to think out of the box, be mindful, creative and expressive with that.”
The drum circles he leads for independent living residents run 15 minutes longer than the programs for memory care residents because he can spend more time on the intellectual aspects of the curriculum and do fewer hands-on activities.
Through music, he puts smiles on the faces of older adults, as they experience the joy of singing along to songs from the past, classics they remember word-for-word by such hitmakers as the Beatles, Doris Day, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. He tries to innovate and come up with different musicians to feature each month and activities that drive home the theme of their work.
The most rewarding part of the job, he said, is hearing residents say they had a wonderful time, were excited to learn something new about the featured artist, or that the drumming itself made their carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis or arthritis feel better and improved their range of motion.
Before founding Breaking Grounds in Drumming, Lavidas had a narrow vision of music.
“I only thought drumming was for people who wanted to learn [how to play the instrument],” explained Lavidas, who also owns Breaking Grounds in Music, a music instruction school. “I never thought it could transcend to other populations, where you don’t have experience or interest in learning the drums.”
He launched the drum circle business after a woman he met at a networking event suggested he do a drum circle at the care community she worked at.
A lifelong musician, he did his research, learned about Alzheimer’s and dementia from medical doctors, and developed a program to support the needs of older adults living with it. He conducted a pilot program for her, and after the first class, she requested he come back once a month. That job led to referrals inside and outside of that community’s network, and to this day, they remain a client.
“You don’t need to have experience or interest to learn the drums—anyone can do it,” he said. “With rhythm, you can interpret it the way you want. That’s the beauty of it.”